MU softball team set for run at Big 12 title

Friday, March 20, 2009 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:39 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 20, 2009
MU pitcher Stacy Delaney is second on the team with a 0.94 ERA. The Tigers lead the Big 12 with a team ERA of 0.96.

*CORRECTION: If the Missouri softball team won a regular season title this year it would be the program's second. An earlier version of this article said it would be their first.

Weekend Series

No. 13 Missouri (25-3) vs. Texas (21-10)

WHERE: University Field

WHEN: Saturday at 2 p.m.; Sunday at noon

LAST SEASON: The Tigers and Longhorns split their series last year in Austin.

COLUMBIA — Michaela Minner has a list of reasons the No. 13 Missouri softball team is ready for the start of the Big 12 season.

“I am more confident with this team this year than I’ve ever been with any team going into conference play,"Minner, a sixth-year senior, said after the Tigers swept a doubleheader against Western Illinois on Wednesday.

Asked why that was the case, Minner began her wide-ranging checklist.

"Pitching — on fire," she began.

The Tigers (25-3) lead all 10 Big 12 teams with a 0.96 ERA. While softball teams often rely on one or two pitchers, four have stood out for Missouri. Kristin Nottelmann (0.69 ERA), Stacy Delaney (0.94), Chelsea Thomas (1.0) and Jana Hainey (1.07) have the four lowest ERAs of Big 12 pitchers who have thrown at least three innings this season.

"Defense — on fire," Minner continued.

Missouri has committed 23 errors this season, tied for third fewest in the league.

"Hitting — on fire," Minner, a power-hitting outfielder and designated player, finished.

A team batting average of .345 puts Missouri well ahead of its conference competition, and its 80 stolen bases is also more than any other team. The three highest batting averages in the league among players that have made at least 45 plate appearances this season belong to Tigers as well.

"It’s perfect timing for us to peak and everyone on the team is peaking," Minner said.

Statistically dominating the Big 12 won't mean much when Missouri faces Texas at 2 p.m. Saturday at University Field to open conference play, but it does mean the Tigers do a lot of different things well on the field.

"As long as Chelsea’s shoulder gets well, we’re healthy," said Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine on Wednesday. "We’re confident, we’re deep, we run well, we got a little power and we’re pitching really well, so I think we have a good chance."

Thomas, who did not pitch on Wednesday because of shoulder soreness, is still expected to start Saturday's game, according to Earleywine.

If she cannot pitch it would likely be the Delaney, a senior, who gets the ball in Game 1, just as she did on Wednesday.

Delaney, an All-Big 12 and All-Midwest Region performer, was in the circle when Missouri won its first NCAA Regional a year ago.

"The impressive thing is, as well as she’s thrown in the last three or four games, she really hasn’t had her rise ball, which is her go-to pitch," Earleywine said. "We’re excited for her to get back in the bullpen ... and see if she can find that riseball again because as successful as she’s been without it, it could be interesting to see what she does in conference play with it."

It would be hard for Delaney to do much much better. In her past four starts, Delaney has given up just five hits and one run in 22 innings.

“It took me a little bit longer this year to get where I was last year at this point, but I think I’m increasingly getting better each game I pitch, so it’s perfect right in time for conference play," Delaney said.

Before the season began, the Big 12 coaches picked Missouri to finish second in the conference behind No. 11 Oklahoma. A regular-season title would be the second* for the program.

"This is what we play our season for, and I can tell you if we lose it won’t be because of lack of motivation or focus," Earleywine said. "They’re ready to go.”

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